On June 28, when the immigration reform bill George W. Bush endorsed failed to make it through the Senate, it was the latest in a series of failed initiatives by the President. And it reminded me of something I concluded a long time ago: Any time leaders take a positional approach to leading others, they are destined to be a disappointment.
Leaders who rely on their title, position, or power to influence others do not lead well. They neglect many of the human aspects of leading others. And that simply doesn't work, because leadership—of any kind, in any location, for any purpose—is about working with people. Positional leaders ignore the fact that every person has hopes, dreams, desires, and goals of his own. And leaders must bring their vision and the aspirations of the people they lead together in a way that benefits everyone.
I didn't expect President Bush to be a positional leader. Because of his track record in Texas I believed that he would be effective reaching across the aisle in Washington. And he called himself a compassionate conservative, which is a phrase I could have used to describe myself. But I'm looking at President Bush strictly in terms of leadership, and I have to conclude that he is a positional leader. Let me explain why:
Failure to Connect
All good leaders are connectors. They relate well and make people feel confident about themselves and their leader. In the last 30 years, we have had the privilege of seeing two great connectors in the White House: Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
With the exception of his response to Sept. 11, George W. Bush hasn't connected with the American people. In moments of crisis, people often receive a sense of security from a positional leader, but that feeling is only temporary. And because President Bush hasn't connected with people since Sept. 11, the picture that will be forever etched in the minds of the American people is that of the President flying over the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in Air Force One, face pressed to the window, appearing indifferent to the plight of the people far below.
Relies on Positions to Justify Decisions
Good leaders build consensus. They seek advice, welcome good ideas, and draw people in. They value people, ask questions, and listen. They not only harness the best ideas of others for their decisions and initiatives, they use their openness and willingness to accept others' ideas to win people to their leadership.
President Bush doesn't do that. He surrounds himself with people who are like minded, and he doesn't seem to value hearing widely divergent opinions. He doesn't seem to desire consensus; he desires loyalty. And like most positional leaders, once he makes up his mind, he doesn't change it easily. When he makes a decision, be believes people should honor it simply because he is the President.
Doesn't Take People Through a Process
Most people don't like change. They revolt against it unless they can clearly see the advantage it brings. For that reason, when good leaders prepare to take action or make changes, they take people through a process to get them ready for it. They communicate vision, encourage feedback, allow people time to process issues emotionally, and make preparations for the change. It's how they get people on board and get things done.
Positional leaders rarely value taking people through any kind of process when they make decisions or initiate action. They rely on their position to carry people through rather than strategy and process. President Bush has also displayed that shortsightedness. In 2006, when a company from the United Arab Emirates made a bid to run major U.S. ports, he did nothing to prepare the people for it. He simply expected everyone to accept it. When they didn't, he reacted and criticized his critics. What was potentially a good decision did not come to pass because no process was put in place to help it gain acceptance.
Small Concern for Party Agenda
Good leaders help their team to win. It is one of the main reasons they have value to the people who follow them.
One of the roles of the Presidency is to lead a political party. Having a President in office is usually a huge advantage to a party because it gives the party a mouthpiece and an advocate at the highest level.
That hasn't been the case with President Bush. He doesn't always show concern for his party's agenda, often preferring to go his own way. For example, prior to the mid-term election when people were calling for the resignation of then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the President said he wouldn't make changes. Only after the Republican Party was trounced in the election and lost control of the Senate did President Bush relent and replace Rumsfeld.
As I said, positional leaders don't like to change their mind—unless they're forced to. Had President Bush made the change in the Defense Dept. a few weeks earlier, his party probably would have saved one or two seats and remained in control of the Senate. By the time he did make the change, it was too little too late.
It's said that good leaders unite their friends and divide their enemies. President Bush has divided his friends and united his enemies. That's going to make it very difficult for anyone in his party to win the Presidency in 2008.
Bush Accomplished Little
Positional leaders often start well. They are confident. They make decisions quickly, and they don't vacillate. But they tend to be rigid, and as time goes by, the people who follow them become less confident in them rather than more confident in them. For that reason, they often have a hard time finishing what they start.
When any leader's tenure comes to an end, you have to ask one question: What has he or she accomplished? As President Bush's term comes to a close, Americans will ask that question. I suspect they will find it difficult to find many positive answers, as is often the case for a leader who takes a positional approach to his work. Because people will follow a positional leader only within the parameters of his title and position, he is very limited in what he can accomplish.
Merely holding a leadership position doesn't guarantee your ability to lead people or to accomplish anything. If you want to succeed in your leadership, you need to connect with people, build relationships, develop consensus, and help your team succeed. Do that, and the odds are very good that you will be able to finish what you start—and win over a lot of people in the process.